As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed directly to American lawmakers on Wednesday to impose a no-fly zone over his country to stop Russia’s devastating airstrikes, Russian artillery continued pummeling Ukraine‘s capital Kyiv and other cities. Zelenskyy knows the U.S. and its NATO allies are extremely reluctant to take any step that could escalate the war, and they have already made it clear a no-fly zone is unlikely.
Even without cover from above, however, Ukrainian forces have managed to stall Russian ground troops’ advance on Kyiv and other major cities, and rhetoric coming from both Kyiv and Moscow appears to suggest that some progress could finally be made after multiple rounds of tense, direct negotiations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” in the talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations, which he described as “business-like.”
“Meetings continue,” Zelenskyy said before addressing the U.S. Congress. He stressed that the talks still needed more time, but said, “as I am told, the [Russian] positions in the negotiations sound more realistic.”
Zelenskyy indicated days ago that his nation was willing to consider adopting a neutral status, and he told a group of European allies on Tuesday that his country had to accept that the door to NATO membership — something his government has long sought and Russia has long refused to accept — was “closed.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Zelenskyy who’s taken part in the multiple rounds of direct negotiations with Russian officials, said Wednesday on Twitter that a “model of security guarantees is on the negotiating table.”
“What does this mean? A rigid agreement with a number of guarantor states undertaking clear legal obligations to actively prevent attacks,” he said. Podolyak did not say what reception the “model” had received from the Russian side.
Lavrov, Russia’s longtime foreign minister and a stalwart of the Putin regime, said Wednesday there were “no obstacles” to a hypothetical meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy, with “the understanding that it would not be just for its own sake; it would have to seal concrete agreements which are currently being worked out by the two delegations.”
He said those meetings were continuing Wednesday via remote video link.
It remained unclear how far Zelenskyy’s government might be willing to go to meet Russia’s other demands, including Putin’s insistence that Ukraine formally recognize the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent, and the annexed Crimean Peninsula as Russian territory.
Putin has continued insisting publicly that his military will achieve the goal he set of the “demilitarization” of Ukraine, but there has been no mention amid the negotiations of Ukrainian forces laying down their weapons.
In a message posted to Instagram on Wednesday, Zelenskyy balked at the notion.
“I can propose to lay down the arms only [of the] military of the Russian Federation, and propose that they go back home,” he said. “We are already at home. We defend our land, our children, our families, so we are not going to lay down any arms. Until we win.”
That fight continues amid the push for a diplomatic resolution.
CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay reported Wednesday that a strict curfew was underway in Kyiv, set to last until Thursday morning, as shelling once again rocked the capital and other Ukrainian cities.
Kharkiv in the northeast, close to Russia’s border, is among the cities being hit hardest. Ukrainian officials said Wednesday that Russian shelling had killed at least 500 residents and destroyed 600 buildings there since the start of the war, with schools, nurseries, hospitals and homes all flattened.
Livesay reported that the ongoing artillery barrage made it even more stunning that the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia all risked their lives to meet Zelenskyy on Wednesday — in person, in Kyiv. Their journey by train into the warzone was a bold show of support, they said, for the “independence of Ukraine.”
Livesay said Ukrainian forces are repelling fierce nightly onslaughts on the southern port city of Mykolaiv, meanwhile, seizing Russian weapons and turning them against the invaders.
Despite the brutal attacks from the sky, Ukraine’s defense forces continue defying the odds, bogging down the enemy — and possibly increasing their political leaders’ leverage at the negotiating table with Russia.
Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.